The LA Dart
It was a ’66 270 I think, a hardtop that my pal (the late) Steve Collison (AKA Collision, Buppity Boy, Colucci) drove from southern Cali (a native) to begin a new life. In New Jersey. Got that? Of his own free will, he left La-La Land for Jersey.
Was he daft? Drug addled? Looking to hang with a higher class of motor heads, maybe? He was all those things, circa 1975, just as we were. I’m thinkin’ nobody voluntarily leaves the left coast to go live in freakin’ New Jersey. That’s where I’m from but I’d spent years in the land of sunshine. I found Stevie’s emigration to the Garden State very difficult to fathom. It gets cold in Jersey. Leaves fall off the trees. The ground gets hard. The women are stony. Leaden skies stay motionless for months. Compared to Cali, it’s a dead zone.
The LA Dart, as he’d named it with some sort of aberrational Funny Car reference (The LA Hooker, maybe?), wasn’t any cheery California tint, either; it was a nauseating wash of tan, flesh, if you will, so nobody even looked twice. It was a great car to go to Brooklyn in for a Chinese grease-down. Park it anywhere. Leave it unlocked. It was almost like the Dart carried concealed pump shotguns and double-0 buck, and that everybody knew it.
Got an undercover assignment and need a plain brown wrapper to hunker down in? The LA Dart was your man, er car. Need to span a lot of miles for a pittance? You looked to the Dart. Never mind that it only had a heater, the hardtop’s windows rolled all the way down and the interior, at least to me, always looked brighter and spiffier than the ones in the other loads we drove back then. The LA Dart and Stevie Dog became synonymous. (We were all “Dog” iterations in those days: Red Dog, Fat Dog, Duff Dog, Ro Dog, etc.)
One was never without the other, which made perfect sense because the Dart was the only car Stevie drove at the time. It was salted with hidey holes and places to tuck stuff would the need arise. Anonymity was its forte and the whole of its charm. Under its natural protective foliage you could sneak up on just about anybody, tap them on the shoulder, and go “HAH!” real loud.
There was a pied piper in Norristown, PA, that we’d visit nearly every weekend. Get there Friday afternoon after the work whistle had blown and stay until early Monday frying our brains and creating as much “friction,” as Stevie called, as possible in the distorted time allotted. Sometimes, we’d be slithering around after dark north of Philly searching for amusement in the clandestine Dart.
We knew it would never fail. It would never leave us by the side in the black night with a lot of crazy stuff tripping synapses or running like wild hogs through our brainpans. That skizzy 225 Slant Six kept on chooglin’, right along with us. The thing wouldn’t die, would never die. We’d heard about putting a brick on the loud pedal with the tranny in Neutral and letting the motor shriek its shrill, sorrowful death knell, waiting for a rod to come out in a plume of oil…or for it to just seize up altogether. Stevie didn’t treat the LA Dart like that, though. Well, maybe once.
One Monday morning we paddled our way back to Jersey after an especially rigorous weekend in Pennsy, still kooked. As we rolled into the tollbooth to get on the Jersey Turnpike, smoke began to rise up from the hood. Or was it steam? It got worse. We caught the odor of burning grass. Some hump had laid a thatch of dried grass on the motor and eventually the exhaust had gotten hot enough to make fire. We batted it out and were back on the tarmac in seconds flat, cursing and blaspheming, cackling like brain-dead idiots.
In time, the LA Dart became an icon, sacred to Stevie, like a cow is in India. He truly loved the car, his trademark, his signature piece, his security blanket. He was staying with us for a few weeks at Great Adventure II (our lovely raised ranch in Millstone) just a few klicks up 537 from its namesake in Jackson. He called the house. He was clearly distraught, angst in his usually kinetic voice: “Hey bud,” he croaked. “I just got broadsided by some ol’ lady. The car’s messed up, man. I feel weird. Please get over here quick.”
I pedaled my high-compression Pinto pronto and knew that I’d be by him in a few minutes, thinking what? Is the thing crumpled in a ditch? Is the coroner already there? Is he trying to explain something unexplainable to the cops?
There was Stevie, Dart slumped on the shoulder, him slumped against it, a hot summer breeze drying his sweat. There was no one else. To hear him tell it, someone had slid through a stop street in a car with failing brakes. They’d tagged the Dart’s right rear fender, but only superficially. After I slapped Stevie straight, we ran over to Pinto’s Automotive in Freehold. An hour a later the Dart looked proud again—even with those half-dozen slide hammer holes in its side, it still looked sweet and regal as ever and would wear the pokes in perpetuity, because Stevie would never get them fixed. Stevie regained full consciousness and was his frenetic, random, lovable self again.
“Shit, Doggie” he said. “It’s just a little road rash. Car’s got some character now and the distinct appearance of experience.” He said this with a different voice, the one that comes for something or someone that has been irretrievably lost. A few days later, we were haunting Pennsy again as if that little episode had never occurred.
If Stevie was still with us, he’s still be driving that damn Dart.